This Monday Chicago school district teachers walked off the job because of contract disputes between the union and the city. According to reports the city and union had agreed on a 16% pay increase over four years but the larger dispute was over teacher accountability. In other words, making teachers responsible for how well their students do on standardized tests.
When the union went on strike the city went into panic-control mode. Mayor Rahm Emanuel condemned the strike and called on police to keep law and order, charities to help feed needy children, and churches to provide activities for affected children. Meanwhile negotiations between the union and city continue. Emanuel is not one to give in but he may have to if the union digs its heels in and the strike continues to last. Let’s keep in mind Chicago is also facing a sky-high murder rate.
This strike however could showcase something larger however. The gradual morphing of the Democratic Party from the party of protecting all sorts of unions to a select few. In most cases Dermocrats would protect newer more down scale unions such as the growing SEIU. The shifting constituencies of America and the Democratic Party made it all but inevitable that this would happen.
It is notable that the President has yet to make a statement on the strike despite the fact the NEA and AFT have heartily endorsed the President. Obama is not the first Democratic President to rankle teachers unions. During Bill Clinton’s tenure, along with a GOP Congress, he instituted a series of small national reforms in education that aimed to eliminate waste, promote accountability and provide states more flexibility. When George Bush came into office his No Child Left Behind Act largely centered on making schools across the nation accountable to one set of standards.
The battle going on in Chicago is also not the first time a Democratic executive has rankled union (teacher or otherwise) feathers. During the dog days of the recession, 2009-2011, Democratic Governors had no choice but to take on the unions to balance their state budgets. In New York, Governor Mario Cuomo, instituted a series of reforms making union members contribute more to their pensions. In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Malloy, also largely echoed Cuomo’s actions. To a lesser degree Democratic Governors in OR, CO and CA have also had to confront teacher unions.
By and large the biggest public battles for the unions, especially teachers unions, has been between them and the GOP. In Indiana teachers revolted and fought tooth and nail against education reform and Indiana becoming a right to work state. In Louisiana they opposed the expansion of Charter Schools under GOP Governor Bobby Jindal. In Michigan the unions successfully pushed a state legislator out of office for his work on a budget bill that cut school funding, particularly in the area of compensation. Even here in Idaho the IEA (Idaho Education Association) and teachers are fighting education reform.
Than there is Wisconsin. Since mid 2010 the state has been involved in a series of brutal recalls and hard-fought judicial elections. The turmoil in Wisconsin just recently culminated in June with the failure of unions and Democrats to oust Governor Scott Walker in a recall (they did take control of the state senate). This means that at least until 2015 Walker’s efforts to reform collective bargaining agreements, create more charter schools in Milwaukee and eliminate tenure and enforce more accountability standards will stand.
As the nation has changed, by and large unions have not. The NEA and AFT have appeared tone-deaf to the cries of millions of Americans, not to mention hundreds of politicians, about the shoddy state of public education in the country. Ironically, despite their solid support for the Democratic Party it seems to be turning against them.
The “old” Democratic Party needed unions to survive and win elections. In big cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, New York City and Chicago, union get out the vote efforts were crucial. In fact, JFK may owe his election in 1960 to some shady union actions in Chicago on election day. The “new” Democratic Party does not need unions as much as they once did. They now connect to a new class of professionals, call them technocrats if you will, that they did not prior to the 1990’s. It could be argued Bill Clinton started to create the inroads Democrats have made with this new group of professionals.
The political environment has also changed. In order for Democrats to keep claiming they represent the interests of minorities, particularly the growing Hispanic population, they can no longer let unions completely run education. Instead, the Democratic Party must be seen as fighting for minorities educational rights and also appealing to upper to middle income technocratic whites who care very deeply about their children’s education.
The battle going on in Chicago between the teachers and Emanuel is a microcosm of the struggle going on in the Democratic Party where the “old” is fighting the “new.” It seems likely the “new” will win out as many up and coming Democratic stars still at the local level, mayors Antonio Villaraigosa (LA), Julian Castro (SA), Kasim Reed (Atlanta) to name a few, are behind reforming education and adopting accountability standards for schools. The “old” union dominated wing of the party has no such up and comers and had none to display prominently at the DNC last week (unless you count Trumpka as young).
Inevitably political parties go through shifts and face internal schisms. The GOP did in 2009 with the Tea Party movement and is still dealing with it today. The Democratic Party is going through the same kind of internal struggle with the teachers unions and Democratic officials and leaders. Chicago simply shows the rift that has been growing in the Democratic Party. A rift driven by the changing political environment, the party’s new constituencies and current fiscal issues facing Democratic elected officials.
Update: Romney to no big surprise came out and strongly condemned the strike.